Saturday, 3 August 2013

A Review of Jaan by Julien Royer - The Ambition of Youth

An updated review of Julien Royer's Jaan in 2014 is here.

I recently returned to Jaan, the fine dining restaurant at the top floor of the Swissotel the Stamford, for the first time since André Chiang's departure.  I could say a lot about the multiple courses presented by Auvergnat-born chef de cuisine Julien Royer, but in the interests of brevity, I can summarise my thoughts in a sentence: very good, but there is a definite sense that Royer is, surely but still in the process of, finding his voice.

Until Chiang's arrival in 2008, Jaan was more renowned for its panoramic 70th floor views than for the quality of its cooking.  I successfully did such views an injustice on my recent visit, but you get the idea from the shot below.  It remains one of the most awesome views from any restaurant in Singapore, and you still get tourists coming up to the surrounding Equinox Complex to take a few photos, getting scared off by the price of a cup of tea and immediately catching the lift back down 70 stories.

When it was announced that Royer was taking over Jaan's stoves in 2011 (after a controversial blink-and-you-miss-it interlude under Gordon Ramsay alumnus Ebbe Vollmer), I thought it was an interesting choice.  I had sampled Royer's cooking at the St Regis' Brasserie Les Saveurs and I must admit, I wasn't particularly impressed.  To be fair, achieving one's goals when hemmed in by the restriction of working for a top hotel's all day-dining restaurant is never easy.  But whereas his executive chef Frédéric Colin aimed for the casual bistro/brasserie market when he left St Regis, Royer was given permission to aim for the stars at Jaan.

I first met Royer at Asia's 50 Best Restaurants ceremony, and after expressing his shock (well, not really) that I had never tried his cooking at Jaan, he invited me to visit when I had a spare evening.

So here I was, to enjoy a taste of what Royer calls "artisanal cuisine".  I didn't know what was meant by that term and to test my powers of deduction, I wanted to work my way through a menu of "artisanal cuisine" and discern what the chef actually intended.

First of all, there is a lot of "me" in the cooking, as in Royer.  It does not come across as a statement of ego, but rather an intent to please.  As with Chiang, Royer straddles the correct side of a personal presentation, namely the desire to share with his guests what has brought him so much personal happiness.  The message is clear from the presentation of the hors d'oeuvres,  infused with a distinct flavour of his birthplace.  His "hummus" (below) is his own recipe using lentils from Saint-Flour, Auvergne and chestnuts, another signature product from Auvergne.  His cromesquis (far below, background), little deep-fried balls of deliciousness, are stuffed with tomme fraîche de Cantal, a fresh and subtle curd cheese whose light acidity sets off the fried crust.

Secondly, Royer has a genuine intellectual curiosity, a wanderlust to find quality ingredients.  Marinated langoustines are proudly proclaimed to be from Mozambique, cured in Chinese rice vinegar and Japanese plum wine.  Most restaurants in Singapore would probably go to lengths to avoid admitting that they use anything from Mozambique, let alone a pricey shellfish, just as many high-end restaurants adopted the nomenclature of "Imperial Caviar"  to avoid having to say it comes from China.  I love the langoustine, love the accompaniments, including smoked ratte potatoes, popping-fresh ikura and an intriguing mushroom ketchup, but the plum wine marinade adds an edge of sweetness that pushes it over the top.

There is also a very strong sense of theatre in the presentation.  He does not waste an opportunity to add some action at tableside, whether it be the waiter pouring the mushroom tea into an earthy mixture of lovage, ceps mushrooms and toasted buckwheat, or presenting an organic egg cooked for 55 minutes at 64 degrees Celsius in an egg carton, smouldering with smoking branches of rosemary (below, photo taken after the smoke had cleared).  The egg itself was superb; there are few things I find more comforting and enjoyable than an excellent quality egg, soft-cooked so that the flavour of the egg shines through.  With the classic accompaniments of ham (jamon iberico; this is artisanal cuisine after all!), potato (as a smoked mousse) and toasted buckwheat for texture, this dish didn't set a foot wrong, although I found the volumes of rosemary smoke off-putting.

Royer is also an extremely versatile chef.  I read an interview in which he claimed that his cooking at Jaan was relatively straightforward.  That might be right until you realise that the langoustine dish above has some eight distinct elements on the plate.  But he handles both exotic and more familiar flavours with aplomb.  For me, two dishes exemplify his skill and flexibility.  First, his lightly poached Landes foie gras with bruleed mara des bois strawberries, paddling in a dashi stock infused with ginger and shiso.  With its Franco-Japanese influence, this is a very Robuchon-esque creation, and in fact reminds me of a dish served by Tomonori Danzaki at Joël Robuchon Restaurant at Sentosa.

But he also works magic with the classics.  Bresse pigeon done two ways, confit leg and seared breast, sings with its accompaniments of a barley risotto, girolles and a foam of vin jaune.  The transient oxidated character of the foam works a miracle with the sanguine flavour of the rare-cooked breast.  Wonderful.

But at the same time, I had a sense that some things do not work or are as refined as they perhaps could be.  Jaan's Garden (below), Royer's homage to his mentor Michel Bras' signature gargouillou, is delicious and painstakingly assembled as it should be, with each component cooked separately and with delicious swirls of capsicum puree and lemon paste.  But whereas the gargouillou was a picture of seasonal elegance, Royer's horticultural effort is an excess of generosity, which makes it a lot of food to consume, as well as making the presentation rather clumsy.  For all that, it is still an excellent dish, and far surpasses many other riffs on the same theme which can be found on local menus.  At the end of the day, preparations of this ilk rely on the freshness and quality of the ingredients, and the precision of cooking times.  This dish excels in both.

There was, however, one dish that struck out for both me and my dining partner.  A cod cooked with eggplant and a nage provencal had a very strong aniseedy flavour.  The fish itself was cooked perfectly, but the aniseedy character was so overpowering that we could barely finish more than half of the dish.  On query, Royer says he did not add any fennel, aniseed or anything of the sort, so I cannot eliminate the possibility that it was a reaction with the wine pairing with the previous course.  However, my dining partner and I have very different palates, yet we both registered the objectionable flavour in the eggplant preparation.

I have to say something about the wine pairings which accompanied the menu.  I know what I like and I like to think that I can objectively judge a pairing even when it is not to my personal taste.  But I disliked the vast bulk of the pairings, and my dining partner, who knows a heck of a lot more about wine than I do, concurred with my judgment.  Now, I am all in favour of finding new and exciting combinations, but never at the expense of gastronomic merit.  To sour the deal even further, they charge a hefty corkage fee of S$100++ (yep, that's S$117.70) if you BYO, without a 1-for-1 option.  So if you know your wine, I would advise you to slip the pairings and carefully pick a bottle from the wine list to go with your meal (unless of course you are bringing a bottle of 1982 Latour, in which case more power to you).


On the recent Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list, Jaan was ranked at No. 23, and won the coveted "One to Watch" award.  Expressing the worth of a meal in numbers is difficult at the best of times and worthless at their worst, but Jaan par Julien Royer is certainly worth keeping an eye on.

I like Royer, and I like his earnest approach to cooking.  He is barely scraping 30, and his cooking has an unmistakable youthful exuberance and energy that is obvious on the plate.  The reinterpretations, the multiple complex elements, the tableside drama, the new and unfamiliar ingredients, all point to a chef with great courage and an aptitude for risk.  For me, he does not yet have the assured touch of his predecessor Chiang, but he is well on his way.

And what is "artisanal cuisine?"  I still haven't asked Royer, and I suspect that if I do, he will tell me something about using the best ingredients and paying respect to the artisans who produce them.  But at the end of the day, there is an medium which translates these raw ingredients into the best possible dishes.  At Jaan, that artisan's name is Julien Royer.

Level 70, Equinox Complex
Swissotel the Stamford
2 Stamford Road
Singapore 178882
BYO Policy: $100++ per 750mL bottle; BYO not otherwise allowed.  Please click here for a list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO, and their corkage policies.
Tel: +65 9199 9008

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